The Labor Department recently released figures showing that record numbers of people aged 65 and older are still working jobs. With poverty rates for the elderly rising, many are holding onto their positions long past traditional retirement ages. Meanwhile, report after report confirms that Americans work longer hours than the rest of the developed world and that number keeps increasing. Even up to our deaths, our lives are being devoured by work.
Most of us hate work and would rather be doing something else. At the same time, labor-saving technologies have slashed the time required to produce enough for ourselves. Why, then, aren’t we enjoying more leisure?
Because our bosses won’t let us. Workers are always paid a fraction of the value they produce for their employer. (Otherwise, why would anyone hire them in the first place?) If labor-time increases, capitalists receive more value at the expense of workers. It is therefore in the capitalist class’ interest to expand work hours as much as they can get away with.
Under this social system, nearly all goods and services are obtained either through laboring for someone else as a worker or feeding off someone else’s extra labor as a capitalist. If you do not work, or force others to work for you, you do not count.
Naked coercion and the threat of poverty ensure the acquiescence of most workers, but it also helps that most have been instilled with a deep moral revulsion for idleness. For many, the most loathsome idea is that the state might provide bare subsistence to someone who can’t or won’t work. We pay workers to produce landmines and menthol cigarettes, but subsidizing someone to hang about strikes both sides of the political spectrum as obscene.
In recent years, however, a small but growing tendency of libertarian Marxists and anarchists has developed in opposition to the dominion of labor. Theorists ranging from the Italian Autonomists to the British journal Aufheben have rejected both the capitalist work ethic and the Leninist ideology of the worker’s state to call for an end to drudgery.
That is not to say that we should all just laze around. There will always be a need for some kind of useful activity, but, whereas capitalism demands more and more labor for its own sake, a democratically organized economy would strive to expand free time — the only real wealth.
This might sound like something out of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” but it’s the direction our economic system is lurching toward. Productivity gains are slowly eliminating necessary labor — the lifeblood of capitalism. For example, between 1976 and 2006, the labor-time required to produce a ton of steel dropped by 90 percent. And it isn’t just industrial labor that’s being automated out of existence. Now, even complex service tasks from paralegal work to marketing are being performed by inexpensive software.
The results of this have been clear: Capital is starved for exploitable labor. Since the early 1970s, the capitalist economy has remained relatively stagnant, unable to achieve the profit rate of the postwar period. While this trend continues, we will see growth in the “surplus population,” those no longer needed by the capitalist work machine. Barring some unforeseen technological breakthrough big enough to jump-start a new era of work – something on the order of the automobile – we will undoubtedly see ever-sharper crises.
Of course, as David Harvey often jokes, Marxists predicted 12 of the last three crises. Capitalism remains cunning, able to evolve and respond to new threats, however bad economic conditions may be. We cannot base our hopes on economic fatalism.
At the same time, I think it’s premature to declare the unemployed or precarious workers the new gravediggers of capitalism. Lacking shared social labor or collective institutions, these subjects remain atomized. Instead, any revolutionary movement will have to construct cross-class allegiances that bring together the energies of the unemployed and the strategic positioning of the working class. But what that alliance will look like is yet to be seen. Despite the claims of some tired, old, idealist organizations, there is no sure formula here.
Even on the left, we’ve heard too much about the dignity of labor and the need for more jobs. Unless we wish to perpetuate a system that sacrifices our lives to work, we must do all we can to abolish labor.
JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student who can be reached at email@example.com.